Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Forsythe Saga

When the curtain rose last weekend on Boston Ballet's Next Generation program (which I enthused about briefly below), the company no doubt thought that with a daring program of premieres, dominated by women choreographers no less, they had some right to expect a little praise from the dance press.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Well, perhaps that's a bit unfair. The Globe's Karen Campbell (once her review finally appeared) did write that the evening's risks "paid off nicely, not just for the art form, but for audiences as well." But alas, she then rated the program precisely backwards, giving the highest marks to the charming chamber piece by Sabrina Matthews, and the lowest grade to the big, thrilling new works from Jorma Elo and Helen Pickett.

But at least she was generally supportive, in the Globe's patented "now-don't-hurt-anybody's-feelings!" way. Not so the Phoenix's erudite-yet-dismissive Jeffrey Gantz, who labeled the program "overconceptualized and underchoreographed." "I wanted more individuality and more interaction," Gantz groused, complaining the evening was "more about human bodies than individual dancers."

The coup de grâce, however, came from the near-pan by Alastair Macaulay of the Times, who perhaps hit the nail on its critical head when he wrote: "My problem at Boston Ballet is with (the) house style." And whose style might that be? In a word: William Forsythe's: "I have seen too little of Mr. Elo’s work to generalize, but he cites William Forsythe as one of the 'master choreographers' with whom he worked closely as a dancer (as does Ms. Pickett, a dancer with Mr. Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt for more than 10 years). And all five dances were lighted by Mr. Stanley to appear School of Forsythe . . . a Forsythean tone dominated most of these works."

Macaulay's right about that much - Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet, has definitely bought into Forsythe as the Next Big Thing, and chosen fellow Finn Jorma Elo as our leading exponent of Forsythiness. It would be nice, yes, if the Ballet would be more upfront about this focus - Next Generation was hardly a smorgasbord of different points of view, and the odd little opening folly, Téssera, in which the four choreographers performed in a schema devised by Elo, ended up emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences.

But is Macaulay also right about Forsythiness in general? I don't think so. A good primer on Forsythe, perhaps, is the excerpt from the seminal In the middle, somewhat elevated, posted above - set to a spooky techno score, the duet is only a small part of a long meditation on incorporating street and break moves into the technical language of ballet. Like much of Forsythe, the results are exhilarating, but cold - like a rush of arctic air - and somehow resistant to the kind of development we expect of serious dance. There's a sexual anonymity, even a commodification, to Forsythe, I think, as well as a persistent undertow of nihilism - as I once wrote, in between bursts of choreographic invention, the choreographer seems to be "just hanging around, waiting for the Viagra to kick in."

But at the same time, Forsythe grips you, at least initially, with his virtuosity, and his formal pursuit of a kind of "freestyle ballet" remains an exciting goal. More to the point, somehow the "School of Forsythe" at Boston Ballet seems to be transcending its master's limits. Jorma Elo, for instance, taps into a kind of exquisite poignance when he meets ballet halfway, as it where, and his latest, In on Blue (at left), was, I thought, perhaps even more haunting than his premiere from last year, Brake the Eyes. That piece, as many may recall, sent prima ballerina Larissa Ponomarenko wandering through a post-industrial shadowland pierced by throbbing, low-pitched sonar. This time, Elo conjured a gorgeous fairyland ballet and set it underwater (or at any rate in a kind of aquarium filled with intensely blue light). This submarine Midsummer Night's Dream soon disintegrated into strange, awkward duets for the men and women (the ballerinas carried on, legs "swimming," with the men sometimes crawling after), which in turn were menaced by surging "clouds" of dancers who invaded the stage with waves of rippling chaos. The work was obviously a kind of elegy for ballet itself - it was set largely to Bernard Herrmann's score to Vertigo (i.e., a love theme for the dead) - and its mournful romance was almost palpable. This piece, like Brake the Eyes, deserves a wider audience - the question for Elo is whether he can bring as much emotional resonance to looking forward as he does to gazing backward.

There was no question, however, that Helen Pickett had opened her own department in the School of Forsythe with Eventide, a big, broad, brilliant work (with the fiercely sinuous John Lam, above) that marked a huge step up from the accomplished Etesian. This time around, Pickett conjured a kind of globalized divertissement backed by an Indian-inspired (that's dot, not feather) soundtrack from Michael Nyman, Jan Garbarek and Philip Glass. The results played like Tchaikovsky-gone-Bollywood, or something the Sleeping Beauty might have watched before marrying Merce Cunningham in Bangalore. The results were also, I might add, dazzling; Pickett's control of space and scale were superb, and her variations simultaneously highly formal, lightly erotic, and slightly bemused. True, the piece awkwardly changed gears, and lost a bit of focus, in its duet-heavy middle section, but nevertheless regathered its energy for a truly stunning finale before a glittering chunk of Abstract Expressionism (neatly pulling one more avant-garde strand into the mix). My final impression was of a dance smartly poised between a dozen or more influences, schools and ideas, with a sense of the history behind each.

This sense of larger formal purpose is, I think, what distinguishes Boston Ballet today. The lesser pieces on the program - Gone Again, from Heather Myers, and ein von viel (that's "one of many") from Sabrina Matthews - were only "lesser" in their intellectual, not choreographic, depth; they were beautifully crafted, and perhaps even more "human," as Macaulay felt, than the pieces by Pickett and Elo, but they lacked the sense of formal exploration that "the School of Forsythe" all but stands for. True, in said school the dancer is subsumed by the dance - but isn't that often the case in formal explorations? (And Next Generation did, I should note, feature star turns from John Lam, Lorna Feijóo, Larissa Ponomarenko, Sabi Varga, Jared Redick, James Whiteside, and Yury Yanowsky.) And isn't ballet actually too often personality-driven (with some critics in this town all but fantasizing about their favorite dancers in print)? To me, the fact that the "next generation" should be given over to ideas rather than stars seems nothing to be blue about.

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